What's Behind the GOP's Fixation on Benghazi?

The Atlantic Wire
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Clinton: 'What difference at this point does it make?'

As Republicans grilled Hillary Clinton on the Obama administration's response to Benghazi in congressional hearings Wednesday, they repeatedly hit on a talking point that doesn't seem like it'd do them a lot of good: It's been four months. "Here we are, four months later, and we still don’t have the basic information," Sen. John McCain told Clinton Wednesday. "I’m not trying to be obnoxious here, I’m just trying to get the answers I believe the American people deserve to hear. It’s been four months," Sen. Ron Johnson told a Milwaukee radio show after he and Clinton had a testy exchange. "More than four months later its unacceptable that the State Department has made it so difficult" to conduct oversight, Ohio Rep. Steve Chabot told Clinton. Clinton will have to respond later in writing, because Chabot used up all of his time with his statement. But they all raise a good question: What have we been debating for four months?

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"The media has moved on," Virginia Rep. Frank Wolf lamented on the House floor, separately from the hearing, on Wednesday. Despite the frenzy of coverage of the Clinton hearings, he's mostly right. But that has at least something to do with the confused case Republicans have made in arguing that the Obama administration did something wrong in Benghazi. Initially, it was that President Obama supposedly apologized to the terrorists. This was the thrust of Mitt Romney's statement, issued hours after the attack, that Romney himself came to regret. This charge was mostly discarded. Then the focus was that Obama didn't call the attacks terrorism until two weeks later, a complaint Obama deflected during a presidential debate, when Obama demanded moderator Candy Crowley "check the transcript" of his Rose Garden speech the day after the attacks and he did use the word "terror," although rather obliquely: "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation..."

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So, take three: Republicans moved on to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice who said on five different Sunday shows that the attacks were inspired by protests in Cairo over an anti-Islam video. This charge was stickier, and cost Rice the Secretary of State nomination. But Rice's scalp did not end the Benghazi debate. In Wednesday;s hearings, Republicans had tough questions for Clinton, even if they didn't always allot enough time for her to answer them. Benghazi is still a rallying call for conservatives. But what do they think is the scandal?

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How come no one was punished?

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"To my knowledge, no one was held accountable" for the insufficient security, Sen. Bob Corker said. But four state department officials have been placed on administrative leave. Clinton said she did not read the cables related to the security situation at the Benghazi consulate. "I am the secretary of state and the [Accountability Review Board] made very clear that the level of responsibility for the failures that they outlined was set at the assistant secretary level and below," she said.

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How come no one got fired?

"People who make judgement errors should be fired and replaced," Sen. Rand Paul said.  "Had I been president... I would have relieved you from your post." But Clinton explained that federal statute prohibits the state department from firing people for failure of leadership. (It's actually very difficult to fire civil servants.)

We circled back to, Wait, but the Sunday shows?

"I’m going back to then Ambassador Rice five days later going on Sunday shows and what I would say purposefully misleading the American public," Johnson said. Clinton said she had no role in preparing Rice's talking points. The Atlantic Wire has speculated that the obsession with Sunday talk show appearances might have something to do with how much senators love going on Sunday shows. He mentioned that in the hearings -- especially Rice's chief antagonist, John McCain. McCain mentioned his Sunday show cred in the hearings, saying, "By the way, as I said at the time -- I just happened to be on one of those talk shows -- people don't bring RPGs and mortars to spontaneous demonstrations. That's a fundamental."

Given that Rice was punished for her Sunday show performance, what does that mean the hearing is really about? For a clue, look at the statement of Rep. Matt Salmon, who referenced another incident that no level of congressional Republican obsession could turn into a major issue. "From Operation Fast and Furious, where Attorney General Eric Holder repeatedly misled the American people and Congress…to U.N. Secretary Susan Rice who on five separate occasions went before the American people days after the attacks on Benghazi talking about a demonstration at the facility that never happened," Salmon said. 

Perhaps the fixation on Benghazi has something to do with the fact that Republicans have been attacking Obama on Benghazi for four months and it hasn't damaged him. Let's review the incident: It was a terror attack, in which four Americans died. In Libya, a country whose dictator Obama controversially decided to help overthrow despite the advice of many staffers. On the anniversary of 9/11. As big anti-American protests spread across the Middle East. It's should have sunk Obama, but Romney, in his own words, "screwed up." Could you blame the GOP for wanting a do-over?

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